U.K. consumer goods maker Dyson faces mounting speculation and political criticism over its choice to build an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Singapore.
The notoriously secretive company recently confirmed its board had ratified a decision to construct an advanced automotive manufacturing facility in Singapore, a custom-designed two-story plant scheduled for completion in 2020.
The project “demonstrates the international nature of Dyson’s operations,” said the company, and formed part of a £2.5 billion (USD $3.2 billion) investment in technology globally.
It follows a £200 million ($259 million) investment in buildings and testing facilities at the Dyson campus at Hullavington Airfield, U.K., earlier this year.
Writing to staff, Dyson CEO Jim Rowan said Dyson’s growing automotive team is “making excellent progress” at Hullavington. “Clearly we now need to move quickly toward manufacturing and assembly,” he said.
Rowan said the decision of where to make Dyson’s first electric car was based on supply chains, access to markets and the availability of the expertise.
Construction of an electric vehicle manufacturing base in Singapore — where Dyson has had a digital electric-motor production facility for 11 years employing 1,100 people — would begin construction in December, he said.
“Our existing footprint and team in Singapore, combined with the nation’s significant advanced manufacturing expertise, made it a front-runner,” he commented. “Singapore also offers access to high-growth markets as well as an extensive supply chain and a highly skilled workforce.”
However, the location has drawn criticism, with political observers linking the choice to concerns over Britain’s departure from the European Union next year.
Ian Murray, a Labour Party Member of Parliament, said Dyson's decision to put the plant overseas raises "serious questions about the future of our economy.” Dyson’s founder and chairman, billionaire Sir James Dyson, was an outspoken defender of Brexit.
Brexit defender and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, used the announcement to illustrate how the U.K. government’s failure to make progress on talks might leave Britons without a homegrown electric vehicle design.
“Come 2021, it is plain that Britain will still be locked in the EU customs union, and still with no plan for exit,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “The tariff on that car coming into the U.K. will still be set by the EU; and 80 percent of that tariff will still be going to Brussels.”
In Singapore, meanwhile, experts questioned what advantage Dyson could gain from establishing a manufacturing base in the world’s most expensive city, as measured by The Economist.
Reuters commented that auto manufacturing in Singapore had ceased almost 40 years ago, when Ford closed its factory on the island. Shantanu Majumdar, a regional director at consultancy JD Power, called the choice “a bit of a surprise.”
Nitin Pangarkar, an associate professor in the Department of Strategy & Policy at the National University of Singapore Business School, said the city state lacks the large amounts of space, power and water needed for vehicle manufacturing.
“There’s a good argument that Dyson has misjudged both his move to the electric car market and the move to Singapore,” Pangarkar said.
With the company keeping tight-lipped on the move — a press source told GTM that Dyson is not offering interviews or follow-up statements after its press announcement — there is speculation that the U.K. firm struck a lucrative incentive deal with Singaporean officials.
The location also puts Dyson on the doorstep of China, the world’s biggest EV market, without exposing the company to China’s tight trade controls and lax intellectual property protections.
And awkwardly for Dyson’s Brexit position, the company could also benefit from a recent free trade agreement between Singapore and the EU Although the U.K. would not be part of the arrangement after next March, the deal could pave the way for a bilateral agreement.
Nevertheless, it is clear Dyson could face significant hurdles in getting its EV manufacturing operation off the ground.
There are also questions about the energy storage technology used in the cars, particularly after Dyson this September wrote off £46 million ($51 million) of its investment in Sakti3, the solid-state battery startup it bought in 2015.
With battery material supply chains increasingly dominated by China, it seems likely Dyson may be beholden to Chinese companies even if it chooses to stay at arm’s length from the market.
“China is where the cobalt goes,” said Hugh Sharman, principal at the energy consultancy Incoteco.